HOUSTON -- Even if the Astros sweep the Rangers this weekend at Minute Maid Park, they're still going to have work to do on the road to win the American League West. The Astros led the division by four games to start the month, but a 7-14 free fall in September has given the Rangers control.
The Astros enter this weekend's series against the Rangers, which begins on Friday, needing to win two out of three to keep any realistic hopes of winning the division alive. The Rangers lead the Astros by 3 1/2 games after winning on Thursday, so not even a sweep would be enough for the Astros to take first place.
"We need a good series here for a couple of reasons," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "One, we're in the middle of this. Despite losing this series [to the Angels], we're .500 on this homestand and we're right in the thick of this. We're in the thick of the division; we're in the thick of the Wild Card, with our sights set on a really big series against Texas. I downplay everything for five-plus months to get to this series. There's no downplaying it."
The Astros are 4-12 against the Rangers this year, including a devastating four-game sweep last week in Arlington that shifted the balance of power in the division to the north. Houston still has a slim lead for the second Wild Card over the Twins and the Angels, but winning the division means you advance directly to a five-game AL Division Series. The two Wild Card winners will play one elimination game Oct. 6.
"We would love to win the division," said Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, who will carry a 14-0 home record into Sunday's 2015 regular-season finale at Minute Maid Park. "That was our main goal, but at the same time, any way you can push yourself into the playoffs is great. We'd much rather play a five-game [series] than one."
Complicating matters for the Astros is that they finish the season on the road, with three-game series next week in both Seattle and Arizona. Houston is an American League-worst 29-46 on the road, including 14-39 since May 27. They've won consecutive games on the road twice in that span.
"We're behind [the Rangers], so we've got to show something if we're going to push to catch them," Hinch said. "I don't think we really need any sort of pound-your-chest moment with the Rangers. I think we beat them two out of three here right after the All-Star break. We've played them fine. They've handled us a little bit more than some of the other teams in our division over the course of a whole season, but I'm looking for wins. I'm not looking for any sort of statements."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.